Much Bindweed in the Marsh

There might be a climate emergency needing urgent shifts to less polluting forms of transport, but getting even a small railway station built seems beyond us.

The title of this post is a play on the name of a BBC radio comedy series, Much Binding in the Marsh, which ran for 10 years after World war 2.  It depicted the chaotic life at a fictional RAF station as the staff grappled with post-war red tape. Over 70 years later, the attempts to build a small railway station at Marsh Barton, a large trading estate in south-west Exeter, are ensnarled in the 21st century version of red tape.

The need for a station at Marsh Barton was first formally identified in the Local Transport Plan 2011-26 [1], published in April 2011.  Three years later an outline business case for the development appeared [2].  The central justification was that the new station – on the main line between Exeter St Davids and Teignmouth – would improve rail links to the area as part of the Devon Metro concept, and so create easier access for people who work in Marsh Barton.  In doing so it would reduce traffic congestion in the estate.  And it would provide a rail link to the proposed large-scale housing developments in south-west Exeter.

Yet the proposed station location is far from convenient.  It was a clear failure of Brunel’s imagination not to realise that 100 years later a large trading estate would be built at Marsh Barton and that his railway would end up going past one edge of it instead of through the middle.  So it’s a 15-minute trot to the other side of the estate, and a good half hour to access the station from the new housing development to the south.  Will we get a frequent shuttle bus service connecting with trains?  Dream on.

Indeed the business case explicitly excludes any planning for bus services and cycle routes linked to the new station.  It also takes little account of the fact that Marsh Barton contains what is held to be one of Europe’s largest concentration of motor vehicle dealers, both sales and servicing. Other traffic is in the form of heavy lorries visiting the industrial units, and traders’ vans and private cars collecting bulky material from the many specialist DIY outlets. None of this can transfer to train.

That said, the main purpose of this post is not to belittle the business case.  The case is based on so much process-driven modelling accepted in consultancy and project management circles that it must have some robustness, surely?  We just have to hope the underlying assumptions are sound and that, despite Devon’s ageing population and other social and technological changes, people carry on behaving as they have in the past when similar stations are opened (because it’s on past trends that much of this modelling is based).  No, what I want to do is look at the whole development process, of which the business case is only one element.

When Brunel built his Great Western Railway out of London Paddington in the 19th century, he had a limited number of hoops to jump through.  He needed Parliamentary approval, finance (from the shareholders), a surveyor, an engineer, materials and navvies.  Admittedly, he wasn’t too hot on health & safety.  When the GWR company board green-lighted him, off he went.  The GWR received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835 and ran its first trains from London to Maidenhead in 1838.  By 1841, trains were running through from London to Bridgwater in Somerset.

Contrast this with the steps required today to build a small railway station on an existing line.  The outline business case gives a clear summary.  Before a single sod of earth can be touched, the promoters of the scheme – in case this Devon County Council through the Local Transport Board, itself a body nesting within the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) – need to have secured funding, the necessary permissions based on detailed design work, and appointed a contractor under public sector procurement rules.  The key players in this joint enterprise include: 2 passenger train operating companies and an unidentified number of freight operators, central government, Network Rail, 3 local authorities, 2 rail user groups, business groups, Devon CC’s own transport consultants, the Devon Metro Programme Board, elected representatives, trade unions, nearby residents or other interest groups, and the appointed contractors.  Any one of these can put a spoke in the wheel.  For example, the initial plans assumed a footbridge with a gradient of 1 in 15, but then Notwork Rail popped up to say that 1 in 20 was the maximum steepness permissible.  And, having planned for the structure to be compatible with the electrification of the line the Department for Transport recently stated that electrification will probably not happen after all (as we all know from the Secretary of State’s backsliding on government rail commitments).

The other big obstacle is funding.  Since the coalition government started to starve local authorities of funds and passed them instead to the newly created LEPs on the grounds that they were not Labour’s now-defunct regional development agencies, almost any significant public sector project that is not national or NHS relies on being able to put together a funding package from different sources.  The Marsh Barton station project was originally costed in the business case at £4.3 million, at final approval at £7.4 million, and has since risen, in large measure due to Notwork Rail moving the goalposts, to £13.7 million.  It may go higher.  To fund this, the LEP initially allocated £3.5 million and this may be topped up by underspends om other projects; the remainder is expected to come from government, Network Rail, Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 agreements with developers, and Devon County Council.  The government recently turned down an application for £3 million from its New Stations Fund.  So after 4 years of planning and negotiations, there is still no certainty that the station can be funded at all.

Does all this planning and fragmented funding really produce a better result at the end of the day?  Or, in this case, will it produce a result at all?  If Brunel had been subject to today’s regime, his railway wouldn’t even have reached Slough.

 

NOTES

[1]  See https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[2]  Accessible via  http://heartofswlep.co.uk/about-the-lep/how-we-work/local-transport-board/ltb-scheme-business-cases/ f

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